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CRAFTSBURY COMMON, VT-Talk about practical training– a course on “Green Dorms” at Sterling College will result in the construction of a sustainable student residence, with input from the students themselves. Planned for fall 2010 occupancy, the dorm will be Sterling’s first new student residence in more than 40 years. But sustainable building isn’t new.

“Almost 10 years ago, we had a senior project in which we talked about green building,” says Ned Houston, the college vice president and faculty member who was among the course’s instructors.

This time, however, the class, taught by Sterling faculty and Milford Cushman–an architectural planner and principal of Stowe, VT-based Cushman Design Group–was more than theoretical. Sterling obtained a $65,000 grant that allowed it to recruit a mix of first- through third-year students, who will actually see, and perhaps live in the building.

Green dorms are not a new phenomenon–the University of South Carolina’s West Quad residence hall, built in 2004, also employed green technologies and received a LEED-Silver certification. Harvard opened LEED-certified graduate student housing last year. And Bastyr University has broken ground on a multiple-cottage student housing project that may achieve LEED-Gold status at its Kenmore, WA, campus. But Sterling’s became an educational opportunity in balance and compromise.

“The question was ‘How green do you want to be?’,” Houston recalled, noting that many had thought that a sustainable building had to be so Spartan as to be a “hair shirt experience.”

Nine students were divided into three teams, who met with the college president and board of trustees, and were given a real-world budget of $600,000 for the construction. The next step was to decide how the building should be configured.

“They wanted joint living space, and study space,” he says. The building will hold 20 beds in approximately 3,000 square feet to 3,800 square feet.

Each team conducted “green” and fiscal analyses. The students then walked around the campus to find a site for the building, assessing drainage and the need to hook up to existing waste systems, and developed models, with Cushman assisting on visualizing goals, and technical details such as code and Americans with Disabilities Act compliance.

A systems approach will be applied, looking at all loading, winds, construction methods and energy usage for optimal sustainability. The building will be situated for protection from north winds, with a southerly aspect taking advantage of morning and afternoon sun. The construction will use lumber from local forests, and recycled or recyclable materials wherever possible.

Current planned sustainable features include a significant amount of daylighting, 50% to 100% more insulation than standard. Energy efficient windows will be installed, solar panels will provide hot water, and in-floor radiant heat will allow students to be comfortable with a thermostat set to 65 degrees.

“I was surprised by how deeply they felt, and how they were willing to meet those goals,” Houston said.

Perhaps most educational for the students was discovering the real-world price of development. “We went to two buildings under construction, and they learned what things really cost,” Cushman says. In fact, in response to building costs, the students suggested that the dorm be built in phases.

The program was particularly well suited to Sterling. With just 100 students in total, the school offers Bachelor of Arts degrees in Sustainable Agriculture, Conservation Ecology, Outdoor Education & Leadership, and environmental self-designed programs through what it calls experiential learning. Sustainability has long been a reality: 25% of all food served is grown or raised on Sterling’s organic farms, and low water usage is normal. In fact, the college uses half the water of most comparable institutions, forgoing ice machines, soda machines and even deep-fat fryers.

“It resonates so well with our institutional values,” Houston said. “Even though students tend to like single rooms, they o.k.’d double rooms because they are more green.”

The course ended in May with the site work determined and three design schemes created by the students. With financing including a recent Vermont state grant of $350,000, the remaining $55,000 Canaday Family Trust grant, and matching money from a Department of Energy grant, Cushman is taking the best of all three plans to complete a schematic design. The firm will work with the students and a Sterling community building committee to complete detailed plans for a March groundbreaking.

Cushman noted that it was important that the students continue to feel a part of the process. And it continues an educational process that was about more than just green design.

“It was a lot of fun,” Cushman says. “It was most fun when I could really see the light bulbs going off, and to watch them learn how to be responsible human beings.”

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